One of my favorite Ham Radio related events is the annual North Carolina QSO Party, which takes place the last Sunday in February.
The goal of this contest is for ham radio operators within the state of NC to activate as many of the 100 counties as possible. Most NC participants operate from home, but others take their stations to roads less traveled in order to activate the rarer counties.
During this contest, NC stations work stations throughout the USA, Canada, and the world, while stations outside of NC are specifically trying to contact as many NC counties as possible.
For NCQP 2017, I decided to return to one of my favorite places, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, parts of which encompass large areas of Dare and Hyde Counties. I surveyed the refuge the day prior to the contest in order to assess the possibility of a DAR/HYD County line operation. The access road below is typical of the many miles of gravel roads within the refuge.
Typical gravel road within the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
The access road above led me to a more remote trail, which I hoped would provide access to one of the three DAR/HYD county line crossings within the refuge.
Upon reaching my trail of interest, I was presented with this spectacle, and I decided not to chance it with my Honda Pilot’s 4WD. There is no cell phone service in this area, and besides, your AAA gold card is probably not going to be much help in this wilderness area.
Spur trail at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Google Earth had identified two additional DAR/HYD county line crossings within the same section of the refuge, so I checked them out and settled on this site that provided firm ground well off the access road:
AA4XX QRP Expedition at DAR/HYD County Line
The antenna consists of an inverted vee fed with ladderline, supported by a 25ft pushup fiberglass mast. The inverted vee consists of three pair of wires cut for 20, 40, and 80M, with the three wires for each leg taped together at regular intervals. Yes, there is mutual coupling between such closely spaced wires, but the antenna loads well on each band, and this antenna has proven to be an efficient radiator on all three bands. I use 50lb fishing line to tie off the ends of the elements to nearby tree limbs. The antenna design allows rapid band changing, which is important in this type of contest.
The bike rack provides an effective support for the fiberglass mast, along with a small concrete block at the base of the mast to maintain stability. Average time to deploy the inverted vee is a little less than 10 minutes.
Bike Rack Supports Antenna Mast for Quick Deployment
The station initially consisted of a TS480AT, an Emtech ZM2 balanced line tuner, Winkeyer, Oak Hills WM-1 wattmeter, and an Asus netbook running N1MM logger. An hour into the contest, I switched over to my backup Argonaut VI for working CW, because the Argonaut has a much better receiver. Not having a microphone for the Argonaut, I continued to use the TS480 for SSB contacts.
NCQP 2017 AA4XX QRP Expedition Station
I stayed at the DAR/HYD county line for two hours, trying to make sure that as many stations as possible got these two semi-rare counties into their logs. This included stations from Europe, Canada, and many US States.
A noisy wild turkey was keeping an eye on me during the last hour of my visit to the refuge.
The drive from the southern region of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to my next operating site at the boat ramp in TYR County took about an hour. This area has experienced major forest fires, which have killed hundreds of acres of pine trees. Nature is renewing the old with the new, as the area beneath the dead trees is full of young pine seedlings.
Forest Fire Damage in Eastern Dare County
A few miles down the road, I stopped to take this picture, where the water from the western Pamlico Sound meets the land. The nearby community of Stumpy Point was once known as the shad capital of the world.
As you can see, it was a lovely day to explore the area.
A View of the Pamlico Sound near Stumpy Point
The Alligator River establishes the boundary between Dare County and Tyrrell County. I have operated from the boat ramp at the western side of the river several times, as it offers an ideal location from which to operate. I regard an ideal location for portable operating as being safe, open to the public, and large enough to accommodate my vehicle and antenna.
NCQP 2017 AA4XX TYR County Beside the Alligator River
I had originally intended to operate TYR from a public boat ramp in the small community of Newfoundland, but this would have added another 15 minutes to my drive time.
I operated for about an hour in TYR County, which like the previous two counties generated contacts with stations in Europe, Canada, and throughout the USA.
Prior to the NCQP weekend, I had spent a good bit of time studying my NC QSO Party Route with Google Earth–which I regard to be an amazing resource. This app allows you to determine precisely where county lines intersect your intended route, and it also allows you to perform a virtual drive through any location of interest. Using satellite view, you can observe schools, parks, boat ramps, and even discern paved roads from dirt roads!
Using Google Earth, I had located a promising school from which to operate in Washington County, but within a few moments of my arrival at this school, it just didn’t feel right. It failed two of my selection criteria for an ideal operating location mentioned earlier–Is it safe? — and, Is it open to the public?
Fortuitously, I found another school a few miles down the road which easily met my three criteria, and I positioned my vehicle beside a soccer field at that school. I tied off one end of my inverted vee to a basketball goal support post and the other end to a tree.
NCQP 2017 AA4XX WAS County
20M had been lukewarm all day, but 40M was really hopping during my one hour operation from WAS. I found that SSB was providing a number of new NC counties that I was not finding on CW.
Google Earth had suggested a school in Martin County that looked promising. Upon my arrival, I was happy to see that this small town school was about as close to perfect as one could hope for. I met one of the nearby residents who was walking his dog. He expressed interest in what I was doing, as well as a friendly good luck as he continued his walk.
NCQP 2017 AA4XX MAR County
It was now getting late in the afternoon, and the usual folks who had been calling me on 40M each time I changed counties were nowhere to be found. I figured that some of the crowd must have moved to 80M, and upon going there, I was rewarded with a band full of NCQP participants calling CQ on both CW and SSB. As twilight descended, it became apparent that 80M was going to provide a good number of contacts for my QRP Expedition station.
It took me about 45 minutes to drive to my final destination in Beaufort County, just north of Washington, NC.
I was excited to have found this site a couple weeks before on Google Earth; It seemed to have a lot going for it–It was situated well off the main road, yet it would provide plenty of space to set up my inverted vee.
Google Earth Satellite View of AA4XX NCQP site in BEA County
My schedule allowed one hour of operation from BEA County, and I used this time exclusively on 80M CW and SSB. The inverted vee performed very well, again providing 80M contacts with stations from Slovakia, New Brunswick, and the USA. Several new NC counties were added to the log from BEA county.
In retrospect, this was not an ideal location to set up in–especially after dark. It left me vulnerable, and I made a promise to myself that I would learn from this experience and give more serious thought to site selection for night time operation next year.
NCQP 2017 was great fun. I would do it again, and that is my acid test of whether an operation was successful.
I have observed over the last few years that the North Carolina QSO Party is no longer primarily a CW contest. In order to pick up as many NC counties as possible, one must now operate both CW and SSB modes. I regard this as a healthy sign, as the NCQP has significantly increased its participation among SSB and Digital operators over the past few years.
Many stations outside NC lament the fact that more NC stations don’t operate on 20M, where they have their best chance of working our counties. Please remember that we need to provide contacts for our DX friends too…
It was rewarding to be told by many operators, Thanks for the new county!
We all need to seriously consider our personal safety when involved in these kinds of pursuits, especially if we are doing it solo. I’d appreciate your comments on your selection criteria for a suitable operating site.
I’d like to express my appreciation to the NCQP Committee for their hard work in making the NCQP such a well organized event.
Here are my stats:
Band Mode QSOs
3.5 CW 38
3.5 LSB 18
7 CW 126
7 LSB 28
14 CW 31
14 USB 1 2
Total Both 242
Bonus Station Summary
Callsign(s) : W4DW, NC4QP, W1VOA
Hope to see you next year for NCQP 2018!